I often get the sense that the makers of many biomarkers envision us as helpless damsels in distress drowning in an icy pond or trapped in a monumental tower with no obvious means of descent. I imagine they think in our desperate grasps for aid, we will cling to whatever assistance they may offer, independent of its buoyancy. But in these moments of fear and uncertainty we must remember for a test to be useful to a clinician not only does it have to be accurate and reliable, it must also add diagnostic value above the clinician’s own inherent aptitude. B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) and its natriuretic derivatives are a classic example of such a test heralded for its isolated diagnostic properties without asking the simple question, how does it help the physician? Through statistical misdirection, the distributors of natriuretic peptides have published research hailing their diagnostic prowess when examined in isolation. Such publications have led to these assays becoming recommended components of the workup for any patient suspected of having acute decompensated heart failure (1,2,3). A recent meta-analysis performed by the helpful folks responsible for the NICE guidelines, sought to examine the validity of these recommendations and determine the true diagnostic accuracy of natriuretic peptides (4). And yet, I fear these authors in their effort to provide an accurate representation of the assay’s diagnostic accuracy, have forgotten to take into account the most important factor when evaluating any diagnostic test, the clinician.
In this meta-analysis, Roberts et al examined the clinical accuracy of BNP, NTproBNP, and MRproANP for the diagnosis of acute decompensated heart failure in the Emergency Department. Specifically, the goal was to evaluate the low risk criteria proposed by the 2012 European Society of Cardiology guidelines for heart failure, a BNP ?100 ng/L, a NTproBNP, ?300 ng/L, and a MRproANP, ?120 pmol/L. They also examined the utility of these assays at intermediate and high levels (100-500 ng/L, and >500 ng/L for BNP; 300-1800 ng/L, and >1800 ng/L for NTproBNP; and >120 pmol/L for MRproANP) (4).
The authors identified 42 articles, examining 37 different cohorts that met criteria for inclusion into their meta-analysis. Combining these studies, the authors calculated pooled test characteristics for each of the natriuretic assays in question. They found at the low thresholds proposed by the European Society of Cardiology, the assays performed equally mediocre. All three demonstrated high sensitivities, 95%, 99%, and 95% respectively. Of course by selecting such a low cutoff, authors ensured that a large proportion of the patients without acute heart failure would also test positive. The specificities of each of these assays were a dismal 63%, 43%, and 56% respectively. As with any diagnostic tool, by raising the threshold of what you consider positive, the authors were able to improve the assay's specificity. When the intermediate thresholds were utilized, the specificities increased to to 86% and 76% for BNP and NTproBNP respectively (authors did not have enough data on MRproANP to adequately calculate accuracy in this intermediate range.) Of course this amplified specificity came at the price of a loss of sensitivity, 85% and 90% respectively. When using the high threshold, authors were able to augment the tests’ specificity even further, but of course at this high level a large portion of patients with acute decompensated heart failure are missed. At a threshold of ?500 ng/L, diagnostic meta-analysis was not performed due to inadequate data. BNP demonstrated sensitivities from the individual studies ranging from 35% to 83%, with a paired specificity from 78% to 100%. Likewise at a threshold of ?1800 ng/L, NTproBNP reported sensitivities ranging from 67% to 87% with paired specificities ranging from 72% to 95%. Finally at the threshold of >120 pmol/L, MRproANP demonstrated sensitivities ranging from 84% to 98% and the paired specificities from 40% to 84% (4).
The authors conclude, “The use of NTproBNP and B type natriuretic peptide at the rule-out threshold recommended by the recent European Society of Cardiology guidelines on heart failure provides excellent ability to exclude acute heart failure in the acute setting with reassuringly high sensitivity. The specificity is modest at all but the highest values of natriuretic peptide, therefore confirmatory testing by cardiac imaging is required in patients with positive test results (4).”
On face value this is a fair conclusion, as all three of these assays seem to perform moderately well at either extreme of their diagnostic spectrum. At very low levels it is safe to say that the likelihood that the patients symptoms were caused by heart failure was fairly low. Likewise when significantly elevated, these assays boast specificities high enough for clinical use. Unfortunately these results do very little to explain the true utility of natriuretic peptides. By isolating these assays’ test characteristics outside the clinical arena, the authors have falsely inflated the utility of BNP and its natriuretic derivatives.
The first issue that is pervasive throughout the literature expounding the utility of natriuretic peptides is the gold standard used to evaluate their diagnostic capabilities. The most prevalent gold standard used is a retrospective review performed by two Cardiologists blinded to the results of the natriuretic peptide in question. 31 of the 37 cohorts in this meta-analysis used some derivative of this questionable gold standard. In one of the largest trials conducted, the Breathing Not Properly (BNP) trial by Maisel et al, authors examined 1586 patients presenting to the Emergency Department with acute dyspnea (5). They found that the two Cardiologists disagreed with the initial Emergency Physician’s diagnoses 14% of the time and disagreed with each other 10.7% of the time (6). This suggests that the cases in question were clearly not straightforward. If two Cardiologists with access to the patients’ entire hospital course disagreed with each other almost as often as they disagreed with the initial diagnosis of the Emergency Physician, then it is fair to say using this definition as the gold standard is less than ideal.
Despite this tarnished gold standard the question remains, how do natriuretic peptides perform when used in the clinical arena? More specifically how well do natriuretic peptide assays help the Emergency Physician differentiate the causes of dyspnea in the subset of patients in which there is considerable diagnostic uncertainty? In the BNP trial Maisel et al examined the Emergency Physician’s ability to correctly identify acutely decompensated heart failure. They found our accuracy overall, when compared to the less than perfect gold standard of a retrospective review performed by two Cardiologists was 86% (6). In the subset of patients in which the Emergency Physician was certain the patients’ dyspnea was not cardiac in origin (<5% chance of CHF), their diagnostic accuracy was superb (92%). Likewise in the group of patients in which the Emergency Physician was 95% certain the patient did in fact have CHF, they were correct 95% of the time (7). It was only in the intermediate group (between 20%-80% probability) in which the Emergency Physician was unsure of the likelihood of CHF, that their diagnostic capabilities were understandably poor. It is in this intermediate group that we would hope the natriuretic peptides could provide us with some guidance. We should not ask how accurately do peptide assays predict acute decompensated heart failure, but rather how well do peptide assays predict acute decompensated heart failure in the subset of patients that present a diagnostic challenge to the Emergency Physician? When charged with such a task these assays are far less impressive.
Although in their initial publication Maisel et al failed to disclose the diagnostic abilities of the Emergency Physicians, citing only BNP’s performance using the retrospective cutoff of 100 ng/L (sensitivity of 90%, a specificity of 76%), the authors later published these findings in a secondary analysis. Published by McCullough et al in Circulation, the authors revealed that when the Emergency Physician was certain that the patient’s cause of dyspnea was either definitely CHF or definitely not CHF, their unstructured judgment outperformed that of the BNP assay. For patients in which the Emergency Physician was certain CHF was not the cause of their dyspnea their accuracy was 92% vs the BNP which was only 84%. Likewise when the Emergency Physician was certain the patient did in fact have CHF, again their judgment outperformed the diagnostic abilities of the BNP assay (accuracy of 95% vs 92%) (7). In fact even in the subset of patients where the Emergency Physician was fairly certain the diagnosis was CHF (>80%), their positive likelihood ratio of 11.5 was far more impressive than that of the BNP (3.4)(8). In the 27.8% of patients in which the Emergency Physician was unclear of the diagnosis, the very group we would hope the BNP could provide guidance, its diagnostic accuracy was entirely unhelpful. In this subset of patients, at a cutoff of 100 ng/L, the assay demonstrated no clinical utility with a sensitivity and specificity of 79% and 71% respectively (8).
Each of the 37 studies included in the Roberts et al meta-analysis failed to truly examine how natriuretic peptides perform clinically. As discussed, the majority of these trials employed a less than ideal gold standard comparator and were so confounded by spectrum bias, they rarely examined the subgroup of patients in which the diagnosis was unclear. Additionally most of these studies used a retrospectively derived cutoff calculated to demonstrate the assay’s optimal performance. This type of overfitting inevitably leads to decreased performance when validated in a novel cohort. Ideally a randomized trial comparing a natriuretic peptide guided management to standard practice could demonstrate what, if any, clinical utility these assays provide. A number of such trials have been conducted.
The first was published in the NEJM in 2004 by Mueller et al. In this trial the authors randomized 452 patients presenting to the emergency department with acute dyspnea to either a diagnostic strategy utilizing a BNP assay or a standard work up (9). Authors powered their study to detect a 20% reduction in time to discharge (an interesting primary diagnosis to choose if one thinks BNP possesses true clinical relevance), defined as the interval from presentation at the Emergency Department to discharge. The authors found a significant difference in time to discharge (8 vs 11 days) as well as shorter times to treatment for the BNP group (63 vs 90 minutes), decreased rates of hospitalization (75% vs 85%) and decreased admission to the ICU (15% vs 24%). In fact every outcome variable trended towards better in the group randomized to receive the BNP-guided diagnostic strategy. Initially these results seem significantly in favor of using BNP in the diagnostic workup of acute dyspnea, until one examines the other RCTs evaluating this question (9).
The second RCT examining natriuretic peptides for the management of acute dyspnea was published by Moe et al in Circulation in 2007(10). In this trial, the authors randomized 500 patients to either a NT-proBNP guided strategy or standard care. Like the previous study the authors used the clinically dubious endpoint of initial ED visit duration as their primary endpoint. Though the authors found a statistically significant difference in initial ED visit time, the 0.7-hour difference (5.6 hrs vs 6.3 hrs) hardly seems clinically relevant. In fact the remainder of clinically important variables all favored the usual care group (in-hospital mortality 4.4% vs 2.4% and 60-day mortality 5.4 vs 4.4) (10). Three other trials published subsequently found similar results. Other than clinically questionable reductions in length of stay, the use of natriuretic peptides had no meaningful effect on clinical outcomes (11,12,15). When these trials’ data were pooled in a meta-analysis published by Trinquart et al, in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2011, authors found no significant difference in any of the multitude of clinically relevant variables including hospital admission rate, length of hospital stay, mortality or rates of re-hospitalization (13). Even in the long-term management of patients with known heart failure, when compared to symptom guided approach, a BNP guided protocol led to further diagnostic testing and more aggressive medical therapy without producing a difference in clinically relevant outcomes (18-month survival free of any hospitalization was 41% vs 40%) (16).
This is not a proclamation of the infallibility of the Emergency Physician but rather the recognition of our shortcomings. There are a clear group of patients that present a diagnostic challenge, for whom further confirmatory investigations could provide guidance. Despite the industry-sponsored studies designed to propagate an overinflated self-worth, a close examination of the natriuretic peptides reveal they add little value to Physicians’ judgment. When we as the Emergency Physician are certain of the diagnosis of acute decompensated heart failure, our intrinsic diagnostic capabilities outperform those of natriuretic peptides. In the patients that present as a diagnostic challenge, these assays are far too insensitive and non-specific to add substantial diagnostic clarity. Furthermore we have other, more diagnostically robust, tools like point of care ultrasound to assist in these challenging circumstances (14). Natriuretic peptides are not the diagnostic saviors that they are commonly proclaimed as. More importantly we are not in need of rescue as often as the makers of these peptides would have us believe. On the rare occasion we do require aid, should we not demand a far more resolute champion?
- Yancy CW, Jessup M, Bozkurt B, Butler J, Casey DE, Drazner M, et al. ACCF/AHA guideline for the management of heart failure: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on practice guidelines Circulation2013;128:e240-327
- McMurray JJV, Adamopoulos S, Anker SD, Auricchio A, Bohm M, Dickstein K, et al. ESC guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic heart failure 2012: The Task Force for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute and Chronic Heart Failure 2012 of the European Society of Cardiology. Developed in collaboration with the Heart Failure Association (HFA) of the ESC. Eur J Heart Fail2012;14:803-69
- Thygesen K1, Mair J, Mueller C, Huber K, Weber M, Plebani M, et al. Recommendations for the use of natriuretic peptides in acute cardiac care: a position statement from the Study Group on Biomarkers in Cardiology of the ESC Working Group on Acute Cardiac Care Eur Heart J2012;33:2001-6
- Roberts Emmert, Ludman Andrew J, Dworzynski Katharina, Al-Mohammad Abdallah, Cowie Martin R, McMurray John J V et al. The diagnostic accuracy of the natriuretic peptides in heart failure: systematic review and diagnostic meta-analysis in the acute care setting BMJ 2015; 350 :h910
- Maisel AS, Krishnaswamy P, Nowak RM, et al. Rapid measurement of B-type natriuretic peptide in the emergency diagnosis of heart failure. N Engl J Med. 2002;347:(3)161-7.
- McCullough PA, Nowak RM, McCord J, et al. B-type natriuretic peptide and clinical judgment in emergency diagnosis of heart failure: analysis from Breathing Not Properly (BNP) Multinational Study. Circulation. 2002;106:(4)416-22.
- Schwam E. B-type natriuretic peptide for diagnosis of heart failure in emergency department patients: a critical appraisal. Acad Emerg Med. 2004;11:(6)686-91.
- Hohl CM, Mitelman BY, Wyer P, Lang E. Should emergency physicians use B-type natriuretic peptide testing in patients with unexplained dyspnea? CJEM. 2003;5:(3)162-5.
- Mueller C, Scholer A, Laule-Kilian K, Martina B, Schindler C, Buser P, et al. Use of B-type natriuretic peptide in the evaluation and management of acute dyspnea. N Engl J Med 2004;350(7):647-54.
- Moe GW, Howlett J, Januzzi JL, Zowall H. N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide testing improves the management of patients with suspected acute heart failure: primary results of the Canadian prospective randomized multicenter IMPROVE-CHF study. Circula- tion 2007;115(24):3103-10.
- Rutten JH, Steyerberg EW, Boomsma F, van Saase JL, Deckers JW, Hoogsteden HC, et al. N-terminal pro-brain natriuretic peptide testing in the emergency department: beneficial effects on hospitalization, costs, and outcome. Am Heart J 2008;156(1):71-7.
- Schneider HG, Lam L, Lokuge A, Krum H, Naughton MT, De Villiers Smit P, et al. B-type natriuretic peptide testing, clinical outcomes, and health services use in emergency department patients with dyspnea: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2009;150(6):365-71.
- Trinquart L, Ray P, Riou B, Teixeira A. Natriuretic peptide testing in EDs for managing acute dyspnea: a meta-analysis. Am J Emerg Med. 2011;29:(7)757-67.
- Al Deeb M, Barbic S, Featherstone R, Dankoff J, Barbic D. Point-of-care ultrasonography for the diagnosis of acute cardiogenic pulmonary edema in patients presenting with acute dyspnea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2014;21:(8)843-52.
- Singer AJ, Birkhahn RH, Guss D, et al. Rapid Emergency Department Heart Failure Outpatients Trial (REDHOT II): a randomized controlled trial of the effect of serial B-type natriuretic peptide testing on patient management. Circ Heart Fail. 2009;2:(4)287-93.
- Pfisterer M, Buser P, Rickli H, et al. BNP-guided vs symptom-guided heart failure therapy: the Trial of Intensified vs Standard Medical Therapy in Elderly Patients With Congestive Heart Failure (TIME-CHF) randomized trial. JAMA. 2009;301:(4)383-92.